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The Social Dilemma 2020 Movie Review Poster Trailer Cast Crew Online
Director: Jeff Orlowski
Writers: Davis Coombe, Vickie Curtis
Stars: Skyler Gisondo, Kara Hayward, Vincent Kartheiser
When you use social media, you probably realize that companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. have data that documents what posts you look like, what searches you make, and what sites you visit. But do you know that those sites also know when you’re happy, sad, angry or lonely? Or that they’re subtly shaping your behavior with every swipe up of your feed? That’s the topic of the documentary-drama hybrid film The Social Dilemma, directed by Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Coral).
The Gist: Orlowski interviews a number of former Silicon Valley executives, many of whom left their companies — mostly the aforementioned three, along with Pinterest and others — due to having moral misgivings about just how manipulative the companies’ algorithims, and the artificial intelligence that takes those algorithms and morphs them into something unstoppable, really are. The main person that Orlowski talks to is Tristan Harris, a former Google executive in charge of ethics, who is the co-founder for the Center for Humane Technology.
If you’re wondering why it seems that the world is so divided these days, social media is a huge reason, and to demonstrate that, Orlowski turns to a fictional family whose kids are addicted to social media to various degrees. Oldest daughter Cassandra (Kara Hayward) doesn’t even have a phone, and youngest daughter Isla (Sophia Hammons) is so addicted to her phone that when her mother tries to lock it away in a plastic “kitchen safe” just for the hour they eat dinner, she smashes the safe with a hammer (but wears goggles!) after about five minutes.
Middle son Ben (Skyler Gisondo) is almost as addicted, but tries to go without for a week; he lasts for two days. We see the AI that manages Ben’s feeds via three people, all played by Vincent Kartheiser. When he goes to an “extreme center” political page, the AI triplets push more of the same content towards him, to the point that he stops going to soccer practice, flirting with his cute friend or doing much of anything else. He goes to a protest and gets arrested, and so does Cassandra, when all she was doing was going to find him. Inside the AI “cell” though, the avatar for Ben gets slowly filled out until it’s pretty much a lookalike.
The entire, scary point of the film is that social media isn’t just selling a picture of you, it’s selling and showing things to you to change your behavior in almost imperceptible ways, all the more to get you hooked into their ecosystem using psychological means that are usually used to hook gamblers.
The best sign that what these companies are doing is working is that the people who are interviewed about these algorithms admit to having their own online addictions. Oh, and they refuse to give phones to their kids. But none of them think that they set out to create something that turned out to do [waves hand] all this.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: It feels like a low-rent Black Mirror episode paired with one of those ominous documentaries we’ve seen lately about how pernicious the internet and social media is, like The Great Hack or Social Animals.
Performance Worth Watching: Kartheiser’s slimy charms work well here as the three-pronged AI for Ben. But among the non-actors, Harris states his case about how companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have gone after profits before social responsibility, and tries to explain how it can be fixed.
Memorable Dialogue: Jaron Lanier, the author of the book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, says near the end of the film that if things keep going this way “for another, let’s say 20 years, we’ll probably destroy our civilization through willful ignorance.” Tim Kendall, the former president of Pinterest, puts it more bluntly, when asked what he’s most worried about: “I think in the shortest time horizon… civil war.”
Our Take: Orlowski certainly set out to scare the shit out of whoever watches The Social Dilemma, to show them what their continued use of social media means. If you’re perfectly happy using your SM despite knowing that these companies have a detailed profile on you in order to serve up ads and content, then this movie will likely give you an unwanted wake-up call. If you knew that these companies were up to no good, but can’t seem to tear themselves away from your phone [raises hand] then… well, you’re also scared. But will it prompt you to delete your SM apps?
It really depends on how alarmed you are at how social media shapes your behavior. Even someone like me, who isn’t on SM to stoke fear or buy into conspiracies, who is aware that users build themselves bubbles and echo chambers, making their viewpoints and behaviors even more balanced towards one side or another, recognized much of the manipulation illustrated in the film. The idea that these executives unleashed their social algorithms into the world, without knowing the intended consequences, much less the unintended ones, and now kind of shrug with phrases like “the toothpaste is out of the tube” is what was most alarming.
Some of the execs interviewed expressed hope that we as a civilization can pull ourselves out of this spiral, but that hope seemed to be pretty dim, or at least Orlowski edited it that way.
And, despite the scripted portion’s inherent cheesiness, it was a pretty good illustration of just how a seemingly average person can get sucked in and changed by what he or she sees on social media. It broke up the monotony of the parade of white, mostly male, mostly bearded faces telling Orlowski about how much they regretted creating things like the “Like” button on Facebook and snapped me into a bit more focus. Usually when I see a scripted piece in a documentary, I howl. But the scripted portion did the job what it was supposed to do, which is show just how invasive and manipulative social media really is.